War machinery and beatdown journalism
Every story about a weapon describes a sufficiently advanced rock turning people into past tense
The technology of war is beat journalism until it is everything journalism. In October, satellite footage first revealed the Russian military massing machinery of war near Ukraine. Last week, months of preparation were bent towards tragedy, with Russia invading its more democratic neighbor to the south.
The stuff of war is material: armored vehicles, stockpiles of ammunition, trucks for resupply of everything from fuel to bullets to blood. It unfolded clearly on satellite imagery, spotted by government spies and public observers alike. In my corner of journalism, covering this buildup meant putting together lists of tanks and artillery weapons, existing machines that would take lives in the days or weeks ahead.
The Smerch, one of a number of artillery platforms brought into war on Ukraine, fires salvos of rockets, with area hit measured in the dozens of hectares. Here’s how I described its effect for Popular Science, days before the invasion:
Inside each rocket is either one large warhead, five anti-tank warheads with a guidance sensor, or 72 submunitions. These submunitions are themselves fragmentation explosives, turning one rocket into 72 smaller bombs that explode into nearly 400 pieces, a fractal of destruction.
The Smerch, like all cluster munitions, is deadly in action and for years or decades to come, with every unexploded bomblet a future tragedy in waiting.
There is an abstraction to writing about these weapons in the context of a war not yet come to pass. I wrote about the Smerch the same way, despite its well-documented use by Russian, Syrian, and Azerbaijani forces in the last decade. It’s been a weapon of present tense since it was created, and of tense presents.
Discontents regular Jack Crosbie, of Discourse Blog and Rolling Stone, has been reporting from Kharkiv. Here is an excerpt from his latest dispatch, on what it is like to live and report in a hotel in a city under attack:
We spent most of the day on Sunday in the lobby, devising a new threat assessment method based on the duration and volume of shelling outside. Silence was relaxing — boots off, naps on the couch, perhaps a trip back up to the rooms on upper floors for a shower or change of clothes. Occasional, faint shelling meant you put your shoes back on. Louder shelling meant body armor on and debate over whether or not to go to the car park, hoping that by the time you had finished discussing the shelling would stop. Anything more than that meant a trip back to the patio furniture and insulation pads downstairs.
The technology of war is abstract, until it’s the reason sleeping in a car park becomes a regular part of your daily routine. These machines are, in every turn, something terrible that happens to people.
That’s what war is, fundamentally. It’s tragedy where the instruments are 19-year-old conscripts and biologists returning to the front as military reservists. This violence is, in part, mediated by expensive machines and professional soldiering classes, but the commissioning of military violence means at all times authoring the potential that civilians will end up dead in the act. This is true for all wars, from Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine to the US drone strikes on Somalia to the Saudi campaign of bombardment in Yemen.
The war on Ukraine has revealed, at least, an ability to call out some imperial violence as such, even within the bounds of formally neutral outlets. Yet for the profession of war-describers to live up to the obligation of our grim profession, it cannot be limited to describing the violence of this war alone as beyond the bounds of civilization.
The machinery of war matters. But it matters primarily because of what it means for the humans holding the weapons, and especially for the humans on the receiving end. It is easy to tell a story of what a weapon means in the abstract. It is much harder, and much more important, to honestly describe what life is like for people surviving on the receiving end of artillery for hours, for days, for months.
Thanks for reading. Here’s the rest of the crew.
A quiet week for The Flashpoint newsletter as my attention was consumed by the war in Ukraine.
President Volodymyr Zelensky is being lauded as a hero and a new world leader. The Ukrainian people are presented as brave frontline fighters from all walks of life, inspired to pick up arms in defense of their land.
Zelensky’s decision to stay in Ukraine and lead the country while being a main target of the Russian forces is undeniably brave. The Ukrainian people, fighting in their own self-defense, are similarly courageous.
But the way the media has been describing their fight and the conflict is telling audiences more than just the story of the people of Ukraine’s fight against invasion. The coverage betraying deep-seated bias in whose struggles against oppression are considered worthy and whose are not; and, in some cases, showing just how insidious the ideas of “us and them” and “civilization” really are.
On the podcast last Wednesday, I talked to Discourse Blog’s Jack Crosbie about his reporting from Kharkiv.
And on Thursday, I talked with a number of journalists and commentators about the conflict and its root causes and likely future.
This story will continue to consume my time—stay in touch at the newsletter and on the podcast as my coverage continues.
Welcome to Hell World
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This morning I spoke with a woman in a town not far outside of Kyiv about what it feels like to be hunkering down in the midst of the rapidly escalating war.
Are stores open? Are you able to get food?
Sometimes. Sometimes. And not a lot. Most of the stores closed. The pharmacy is closed. On the weekend everything was closed. Everything. For food, I will tell you the story of how I spent the last hour. We have a friend, the owner of the small store here, she was evacuated to the west of Ukraine. Right now she’s not able to come here. She asked my husband to break down the door and give the food to the people who need it. It’s what I have been doing for the last hour. Sharing the food for everybody. Nobody is asking for money. They say, ok, the war will be over, we will help one another again. Right now, even the stores that are open are cash only, but you cannot get the cash. It’s no ATMs open, no banks open. No currency exchange open.
Last week I went long and maudlin on the passing of Mark Lanegan.
I have no idea what specifically happened to end Mark Lanegan’s life but his horrific bout with Covid certainly couldn't have helped matters for a man who was like a lot of us already always gambling with time. He fell down the stairs one day and fucked up his knee and his ribs and all the other parts of him and next thing he was in the hospital as he wrote in his recent book Devil in a Coma and then at some point he got Covid and although he lived through it it sounds like it was absolute torture. He didn’t live through living through it though if that makes sense. Or maybe he did I don’t know. An addict rock star dying is never really that surprising but fifty seven still seems too young though. It’s not young for anything besides dying but it is young for that. A lot of people from that Singles soundtrack are dead now including of course Layne Staley and I know Lanegan said he hated the movie but that scene where Alice In Chains plays in the club switched something in my brain man.
He and Layne and Kurt were often trying to kick at the same time or else one of them was and the other two weren’t and that is typically how it goes with using friends. It has to be a united front or else it won’t hold up.
Last week we kept an eye on the 15-year-old U.S. war in Somalia even as the focus of the world understandably turns to Ukraine. Before that we covered an indictment that pointed to how much impunity for torture the U.S. allows. For reasons that Luke articulated, as well as my own, I'm hesitant to cover the Ukraine conflict. You should read Jack's stuff instead because he's on the ground. I might go at some larger geopolitical conflict stuff that doesn't require fronting like I know the region any better than you do.
But a reminder: buy a year of FOREVER WARS and you'll get six paid-tier months from Luke and Derek, presuming we don't all die in World War III.
Vladimir Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine has engendered questions about interventionism that are central to the future of U.S. foreign affairs: Is it possible for the United States to undertake “good” military interventions for causes that some segment of Americans deem worthy? Or should the United States militarily retreat from the world, leaving the affairs of other regions to those more directly affected by them?
On first glance, the answer to these questions appears to be simple, especially for the anti-imperialist: of course the United States should refuse to intervene militarily in foreign affairs that don’t directly threaten US “interests.” But this position—which, to be transparent, is my own—nevertheless begs two additional, and crucial, questions: What are the United States’ “interests,” and who gets to decide them? Can an anti-imperialist really refer to US “interests” with a straight face?
Gaby Del Valle & Felipe De La Hoz
As Russian troops find their expected progress into Ukraine thwarted by local resistance, some observers fear that Russia will turn to increasingly indiscriminate and heavy-handed tactics. Already, there are reports of the use of cluster munitions and shelling of civilian infrastructure. The next few weeks are an inflection point that will determine the scale of displacement for Ukrainians, who may start to flee in mass numbers if Russian troops amp up their attacks. Thousands of refugees have already gone into neighboring countries, and a Pentagon assessment concluded that the number of refugees in sum could conceivably reach into the millions.
Ukraine’s visa-free travel arrangements with the EU mean that refugees will pretty easily be able to enter EU countries, and either petition for humanitarian protections or go through more established immigration routes like employment visas. It’s likely that Europe will absorb some large number (in a dark irony, doing so at the exact same time as it continues to fortify against the arrival of refugees from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia), but if the numbers get high enough, some significant percentage will be going through the global refugee pipeline and ending up in the United States.
For this to happen, resettlement experts are urging the government to start laying the groundwork now. As we wrote in last week’s BORDER/LINES, it’s an opportunity for the administration to handle a looming refugee crisis much better than the botched Afghan withdrawal, and it can take intentional steps like bolstering its processing capability in places like Poland. For the roughly 30,000 Ukrainians already in the U.S. but with no current permanent status, lawmakers and advocates are pushing for a Temporary Protected Status designation, which would protect them from deportation and grant work authorization. It would be an easy strategic win for Biden, and a way to do something without actually getting involved in the conflict.
All Cops Are Posters
In last week’s ACAP I spent a little time unpacking the way police and the pro-cop crowd perform and defend their grief when one of their own dies “in the line of duty.” Three people in New York City lost their jobs after posting snarky shit online about an NYPD officer’s funeral, and a woman in Chicago was arrested and is now facing felony charges for tweeting a video of herself tearing a photo down from a CPD officer’s memorial. Not the most urgent story happening right now, but—no cancel culture—it’s always worth keeping an eye on which opinions we aren’t allowed to express online.